Planning Backasswards

When creating a story, most books recommend that you identify what the hero wants. This is half of what you need to do. You also need to identify what the villain wants.

Here’s a guaranteed formula to frustration and a dead-end. Start a screenplay by identifying what your hero wants. Make your hero constantly strive towards this goal and what do you get? Probably a boring story. Here’s why.

The hero is only as interesting as the villain he or she is up against. The villain defines the hero so without knowing who and what your villain wants, your hero will likely flounder around and go nowhere.

You need to identify both your hero’s goal and your villain’s goal.

Your hero’s goal defines the emotional goal of your story. In “Die Hard,” what was Bruce Willis’s original goal? It was to get back with his wife. Not too exciting is it?

In “WALL-E,” WALL-E’s big goal? To find someone to love. Again, kind of boring.

In “Star Wars,” what was Luke’s goal? To get off his planet and live a life of adventure. Okay, a bit more exciting, but still vague. He could have just stowed away on a freighter leaving his planet and that would have satisfied his goal.

What makes all of these stories memorable isn’t the hero’s goal but the villain’s goal.

In “Die Hard,” the villain wants to take everyone hostage, break open the safe, kill all the hostages, and escape with the money. That’s a pretty big goal. Because the terrorists capture Bruce Willis’s wife, the villain’s goal links the villain to the hero. Now to succeed, Bruce Willis’s wife may die, and that will stop Bruce Willis’s goal of getting back with his wife forever.

In “WALL-E,” WALL-E just wants to find love, but then he runs into the Buy N Large corporation that wants to keep the human race stuck on spaceships forever. If the Buy N Large corporation succeeds, then WALL-E risks being forever stranded on Earth alone.

In “Star Wars,” Dart Vader already has vast goals to crush the rebel alliance with his Death Star. When Luke gets caught up on the side of the rebel alliance, now Luke must fight Darth Vader. Luke initially could have cared less about Darth Vader, but the villain’s goal keeps bumping into the hero’s goal, getting in the way until the hero has to keep battling the villain.

In your own screenplay, identify the hero’s goal for an emotional goal. Then identify the villain’s goal for the visually more exciting physical goal (wipe out the rebel alliance with the Death Star, blow up the hostages and escape with the loot in “Die Hard”, try to crush WALL-E in a trash compactor and keep the starships forever marooned in space).

Your villain’s goal will make for an exciting battle, but the hero doesn’t want to stop the villain necessarily. What your hero really wants is to achieve his or her own emotional goal, and the villain’s actions provide that physical route to do so.

The villain is necessary, and by identifying your villain’s goal, you identify what makes your story interesting. To determine the end of your story, start with the villain’s goal, then work backwards to determine your hero’s goal and how it can get entangled in you villain’s goal.

Watching a hero overcome a physical goal (defeating the villain) is only half of a story’s ending. The other, more satisfying half is when the hero defeats the villain and achieves his or her emotional goal at the same time.

For many bad movies, they only focus on the hero defeating the villain, which makes for a flat, dull ending. The better movies end with the hero defeating the villain (physical goal) and then achieving the emotional goal in the process. That’s a satisfying ending.

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